During a recent vacation, I split 10 days between 2 charming Southeast Asian cities, Siem Reap in Cambodia, and Luang Prabang in Laos. Both had their own charisma and third world similarities. Here are some awesome eats and fun things to do in each location.
Our first city was Siem Reap, Cambodia, where batches of tourists arrive daily to visit nearby Angkor Wat. The highest building in Siem Reap is an innocent and barren 2 story mall; no McDonalds, no 7-11’s… it maintains originality, unlike many other southeast asian locales. Stores on the main strip are overflowing with cheap gemstones and products made from crocodile skins.
Females are lured to buy souvenirs and massages with friendly Cambodian women cooing “Helloooo laaaaady!” Throngs of students on rickety bikes pedal ferociously through town each morning veering for women who waddle down the street; it seems as though every woman is swaddling a baby or on the verge of giving birth.
Transactions are an odd mingling of US Dollars and Cambodian Riels, with nearly every purchase costing one dollar. Tarantula? One dollar! Bracelet? One dollar! Smoothie? One dollar! Draft Beer? FIFTY CENTS! I drank my weight in cheap, Cambodian beer which flows abundantly from the taps. (I thought the beer was fabulous, but maybe my standards have slipped after drinking watery Chang.) The place to drink beer and get excellent food was Pub Street; it’s one of those places that just has a great vibe. It reminded me of Old Town, Fort Collins with its festive, fun strands of lights and unpretentious atmosphere.
Food: I gorged on Chicken Lok Lak, which is a traditional dish of tender chicken served with a small bowl of pungent crushed black pepper and garlic sauce. Simple but so delicious. What’s a better dessert than reptiles on a stick? Street vendors offer a healthy assortment of fried tarantula, frogs, and snakes. Of course, I tried some.
FAVORITE THING #1: Bang Mealea! Even though Angkor Wat was necessary to see, and noteworthy, the huge crowds of pushy tourists are a drawback. My favorite site was not Angkor Wat, but Bang Mealea, which is about an hour away from Siem Reap. This is perfect for the traveler, like me, who likes adventurous exploring and doesn’t mind getting a little dirty. There is no red tape here; broken bones are on your own time.
We hiked in and around these curious ruins, over fallen sandstone slabs carved with bodacious female bodies and found creative ways to reach the tops of ancient structures. These ruins feel so natural, like they have grown roots into the Earth. The sandstone makes the air cooler and denser, and it has a coating of green moss which looks so beautiful as the sunlit hits it through the trees.
The tuk tuk ride to and from Bang Mealea allowed us to see a little bit more countryside. Naked babies bumped around in bicycle baskets, and hammocks were draped under stilted houses waiting for tuckered out children who peered out from dusty doorways and offered a feeble wave.
FAVORITE THING #2: Phare, the Cambodian Circus! This show features underprivileged students from Battambang, who have been professionally trained in performing arts at the non-profit Phare Ponleu Selpak. They put on a thrilling, energetic show with live music and themes around social awareness. It happens every night at 7:30! It was so fun that we went back the next night for a different show!
After a short plane ride, we landed in our second location, Luang Prabang, often called the heart of Laos. It is a slow-paced, peaceful city that sits at the convergence of the Mekong and Namkhan river. The rivers induce chilly, quiet mornings and envelop the city in a gentle fog.
All too quickly, it’s bright, sunny, and travelers are sipping foamy Lattes and eating baguettes; this city has colonial French influences which converge with modest Lao twists. White French buildings boast beautiful dark wood doors, and bright pink bougainvillea hang over tables of dinghy jewelry and drying patties of sticky rice. Orange robed monks step over matted dogs in blazers.
Food: SANDWICHES!!! They may not sound that special, but if you have been deprived of a simple sandwich for a long period of time, it becomes a glorious, satisfying delicacy. Street vendors sell baguettes with endless combinations of fixings starting with a slathered wedge of laughing cow cheese.
I had at least one every day. A great drink pairing with a sandwich is BeerLao, the national beer.
FAVORITE THING #1: Koung Xi Waterfall! This waterfall was 3 full fledged tiers of the most beautiful, light turquoise water I have ever seen. We spent time at each tier, breathing in the beauty. A rope swing at the top tier plunks foreigners into the absolutely frigid water.
FAVORITE THING #2: Free jewelry making class! We crossed the temporary bamboo bridge over the Namkhan River and saw a sign for a jewelry making class! After we picked a piece in the store, the talkative, young owners of ‘Garden of Eden Jewerly’ sat with us on the balcony of the store and patiently gave us instructions about how to make our pieces. We talked for 2 hours while leisurely twisting wires into trees, adding beads, and enjoying each other’s company.
Dyen Sabai, a restaurant next to this shop, is known for its traditional, delicious fondue! Other memorable activities were Le’Estranger, a cute tea and book shop that shows a movie every night at 7. (It was memorable mostly because I had ginger tea that was so potent it stung the back of throat with every sip I took.) I also participated in the early morning Alms ceremony, where I was irked by the lack of Alms ceremony etiquette from foreigners. I let go of my irritation at a yoga class overlooking the Namkhan River at Utopia Restaurant.
The sunsets in Luang Prabang were startilingly fierce for such a quaint city. I enjoyed watching a sunset in yet another country. As Augustine of Hippo says, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I’ve turned a couple more pages here in Cambodia and Laos, and I can’t seem to put the book down; this world is a page-turner.